Update (9/16/20): An ActBlue representative reached out to Media Matters to clarify that the organization itself labels the donors in question as “not employed” rather than “unemployed” — while right-wing media are using the latter term in order to push this story.
Fox News is hyping another set of disingenuous allegations from a right-wing group against the online fundraising platform and payment processor ActBlue, claiming that half the donations made to Democratic candidates via the platform are by people who have self-identified as “unemployed” and thus may show that foreign agents are funneling money into Democratic political campaigns.
What is actually going on here: Since federal election law requires political donors to list either their employer or the lack of one, these “unemployed” donors would also include retirees, students, stay-at-home parents, and so on.
A Fox online report published over the weekend alleged “possible foreign involvement” in donations to ActBlue, according to allegations made by right-wing group Take Back Action Fund — an obvious attempt to flip the script around from the network’s usual dismissal of Russian election interference on behalf of Donald Trump.
The claim picked up mileage online, with right-wing figures including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), actor and conspiracy theorist James Woods, Fox News commentator Mark Levin, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, and others chiming in.
Fact-checkers who debunked this new claim typically noted that the label of “unemployed” has a different meaning in common parlance, as compared to the technical definition for the government’s economic data — and thus “lots of retirees, students, and others who aren’t in the labor force probably check ‘unemployed.’”
Former Republican strategist Liam Donovan did some further digging and found there’s a binary-choice question on the ActBlue platform: “Are you employed?” Those who answered in the negative, and gave money in significant amounts, would likely be retirees — especially when ActBlue was compared alongside WinRed, its Republican-aligned counterpart, which poses this question in a different manner and gives the donors an option to click “I’m Retired.”
Tuesday morning’s edition of Fox & Friends featured an appearance by John Pudner, head of the Take Back Action Fund, who claimed, “This is ripe for a programmer, or anyone overseas who wanted to filter money in, this would be the way to do it. You wouldn’t list an employer, you’d just use American names and send it in.”
“We know that China and Iran and Russia are trying to influence our election,” Pudner added. “What easier way than to put a programmer on this and put in foreign money into campaigns. So ActBlue is just a willing conduit.”
Fox News has previously hyped another easily debunked smear involving ActBlue, falsely claiming that donations to the Black Lives Matter movement would be funneled instead to Democratic campaigns. (That particular claim also appears to have originated on far-right message boards.)
Meanwhile, reports have also recently surfaced that Trump-appointed Postmaster General Louis DeJoy built up his reputation as a Republican fundraiser by pressuring his employees to donate to his favored candidates, allegedly paying them back later through bonuses. Such an arrangement, if true, would have circumvented the individual limits on contributions — and would also have been clearly illegal.
In its coverage of that story, Fox gave a prominent place to DeJoy’s ongoing denial of having done anything improper, and published a spokesperson’s statement that “he regrets if any employee felt uncomfortable for any reason.”